Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Matter of Doe v. Skidmore University, 152 A.D. 3d 932 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 2017)

School type: Private
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Other
Keywords: Arbitrary & capricious, Basic fairness

The court granted Plaintiff’s Article 78 petition to annul the university’s finding of responsibility in his sexual misconduct case and ordered the university “to reinstate petitioner as a student and expunge all references to this matter from his school record.”

Plaintiff was accused of sexual misconduct by a classmate with whom he had a sexual encounter in January 2014. The university used an investigative model to adjudicate the case: there was no hearing. Plaintiff’s Article 78 petition alleged both that the university had denied him fundamental fairness and that the university had failed to comply with its own policies.

The court rejected Plaintiff’s fundamental fairness argument, holding that it was “without merit because respondent is not a public university.”

The court did find, however, that the university had failed to comply with its own policies. Under New York law, “a court reviewing a private university’s disciplinary determination must determine ‘whether the university substantially adhered to its own published rules and guidelines for disciplinary proceedings so as to ascertain whether its actions were arbitrary or capricious.’” The court proceeded to identify “multiple failures that here, taken together, demonstrated a lack of substantial compliance” and caused prejudice to Plaintiff.

First, the university did not provide Plaintiff with notice of the factual allegations against him, as required by university policy. Instead, Plaintiff did not learn the details of the accusations against him until he received the draft investigation report — after he had already been interviewed. This materially affected his interview: for example, the complainant alleged that Plaintiff had coerced her into performing oral sex on him, but Plaintiff made no mention of oral sex during his interview, because he was unaware of the complainant’s allegation.

Second, the complainant made a new allegation — that Plaintiff had performed oral sex on her — of which Plaintiff was unaware until the final investigation report, at which point he had very little opportunity to defend himself except in a brief closing statement. Third, the university considered witness statements that “amount to little more than gossip,” despite the fact that university policy defines a witness as someone with “information directly relevant to the incident.” Finally, the university considered, in deciding on Plaintiff’s sanction, a prior disciplinary incident that was not, as required by university policy, “substantially similar” to the allegation in the case before them.